Like the cartographer himself, van Linschoten’s map of the Indian Ocean is the product of an age dominated by massive advances in science and exploration. It is an opulent historical record that testifies to the dramatic intersectionality between art and geography in late 16th century.
The maps of Dutch cartographer Jan Huygens van Linschoten are always a treat, but this is something truly special. Not only is this one of the most celebrated and stunning maps to be produced of southern Asia in the late 16th century, but it is also among the earliest detailed navigational charts of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea ever produced. Printed in Amsterdam in 1596 as a large copperplate engraving, and subsequently hand colored, it takes the viewer from the Arabian Peninsula to the mouth of the Ganges, with all of the Indian Subcontinent included. In the west, the longitudinal fringe of the map ensures that both the East Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa are depicted, and in the north, the fringes are delineated by the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The map is endowed with a plethora of information regarding both land and sea, details that are both beautifying and functional at the same time. The impressive ornamentation includes a double strap-work cartouche, a large central compass rose, several sailing vessels, and a bestiary of animals and sea monsters to excite even the most hardened adventurers.
For a late 16th century product, this map is unequivocally impressive in the degree of detail that it includes. It is navigational, with extensive rose-lines zigzagging the maritime spaces and anchored in a monumental compass rose in the middle of it all. Undoubtedly, this distinctly nautical feel is intentional and the result of van Linschoten’s many years aboard Dutch and Portuguese merchant ships. But it was also a commercial choice, in that the functional aspect of a map such as this pertained to trade opportunities. Many maps from the Age of Exploration carry this hallmark; what makes van Linschoten’s maps so special, was the fact that his charts were informed by his own experiences, as well as a profound first-hand knowledge of navigation and seamanship (for more, see context section below). Consequently, it is perhaps not surprising that van Linschoten went to great lengths to compile a chart that surpassed its competitors in terms of coastal geography.
There are many ways in which van Linschoten’s map of the Indian Ocean is superior to its contemporaries. First of all, the map provides a more accurate depiction of the Indian subcontinent than previous maps by, for example, Ortelius and Mercator. Given van Linschoten’s personal experience in sailing on India, this is perhaps understandable, but India is not the only region on the map which is depicted with such an extraordinary amount of detail. While most modern scholars agree on the exceptional quality of van Linschoten’s cartography, his sources are a much greater mystery — especially when it comes to areas he had not personally visited. Much of the Arabian Peninsula’s coastline, for example, has been dramatically improved upon when compared to his immediate predecessors. A similar scenario is seen along the Barbary coast and in India, where mercantile ports dot the coastline like pearls on a string. Even in the fringes of the map, such as East Africa, Sumatra, and the Bay of Bengal, van Linschoten operates with an impressive degree of detail and includes information on crucial features such as inlets, natural harbors, or ports of call.
At the end of the day, the quality of this chart is perhaps to be expected. Van Linschoten compiled most of his maps while in the service of the Portuguese King, and the Portuguese had dominated these waters since Vasco da Gama had broached the Cape in 1498, the first European to do so. Whatever were his sources, the result was outstanding, and constituted a significant step in the process by which the closely guarded secrets of Portuguese cartographers would become known to the outside world. Van Linschoten’s maps and rapports were instrumental in breaking Spanish/Portuguese dominance and ushering in an era of Dutch expansion and influence on the world stage. We are in other words treated to a beautiful and comprehensive vista of the Indian Ocean under heavy Portuguese influence; an influence that would wane over the coming century and gradually be replaced by an equally tight Dutch grasp. In many ways, one might argue that van Linschoten straddles this divide perfectly — not just in terms his origin and terms of employment, but because he braved the world at a crucial time and had both the intellect and education to capture this moment and facilitate the changes that followed.
It is not difficult to discern the distinctly nautical or maritime outlook present in this map. Yet despite van Linschoten’s background and personal experience at sea — not to mention an overwhelming commercial interest in reliable nautical maps — significant care has also been lent to the depiction of inland regions. Much like the littoral landscape, the interiors abound in both toponyms and topography. In East Africa for example, with find numerous tributaries to the Nile, all of which are lined with named settlements. This was not common knowledge in the 16th century, and must have entailed the integration of local knowledge and tradition while compiling the map.
Within the Indian Subcontinent itself we also see a relatively sophisticated understanding of local geography. Van Linschoten includes numerous rivers and an odd central mountain range that presumably constitutes an amalgamation of the Eastern and Western Ghats. This oddity would seem to suggest that despite living in the region for some time, van Linschoten did not have a very solid understanding of the hinterland. Even so, he depicts many of the major cities and towns of the interior, and tentatively subdivides and names the distinct provinces of the Subcontinent. That India remains shrouded in mystery and legend is underscored by the depiction of two grazing unicorns just south of Delhi (Delli). While on the subject of animals, one might also note the presence of an elephant, camel, and lion in the Arabian interior.
One could go on describing the many details of the map, for there are so many. But if we move on to the actual maritime sphere, there are a few elements really worth noting here as well. We have already mentioned the presence of several sea monsters; a well-known feature of this age of cartography. The most prominent is found in the lower right corner of the map, aggressively breaching the surface for air, and sporting an elongated mouth and a grimacing look. We are fortunate that this beast is rather easy to identify, as it figures prominently in another iconic map form the late 16th century, namely Abraham Ortelius’ Islandia. From the associated text, we know that this is a Nahval or narwhale, which is described as having a seven-cubit tooth sticking out of its forehead, which mariners have tried to pass off as the horn of a unicorn. While the ‘tooth’ apparently has antidotal qualities, the flesh of this beast is toxic and will kill any person that consumes it.
A second monster in the lower left of the map is more difficult to identify, but is presumably another large type of whale. What is more interesting about this image is that the whale is drawn in conjunction with a ship. This may well refer to the attacks on vessels by whales that already at this stage in history were hunted and caught in the most brutal manner. Such stories of gigantic attacking sea creatures would always be met with great deal interest and perhaps gullibility.
In the centre of the Indian Ocean we find one of the most visually impressive compass roses seen from this period, testifying once again to the importance of maritime navigation in the motivations behind this map. It provides no less than 32 compass or rose lines, which form a network of navigable sight lines across the Ocean. Local peoples had been crossing this expanse since the Iron Age, drawing on the seasonal monsoon winds to cross swiftly and safely. In initial years of the 16th century, the Portuguese were not as aware or adept at utilizing this natural force, and would consequently tack along the coast, letting in whenever the ship needed to be re-stocked or opportunities for trade presented themselves. By the time van Linschoten published his map, the Portuguese had also deciphered the monsoon routes and were fully able to cross the open body of water using sight-lines such as the ones on this map.
A final note should be made about the three boxes of text in the upper right hand corner of the map. The two upper ones are both title boxes presenting, the rather long (but visually humble) title of the map. The inclusion of two boxes for this is due to the title figuring in two distinct languages — Latin and Dutch — which of course not only denote van Linschoten’s personal and professional affiliations, but which also encapsulate the challenge that a Dutch presence would soon prove to be to the global ambitions of the Spanish and Portuguese. Immediately below the title boxes, we find the scale bar, which also provides a scale for Iberian (Hispanicæ) and Northern European (Germanica) users respectively. This presence of a double title cartouche and scale bar underscores the entrenched duality that permeates not this map, but indeed the time in which it was created.
Context is everything
Jan Huygens van Linschoten was the son of an innkeeper, and grew up hearing the stories of travelers and sailors. Being born to a well-off family permitted him an advanced education, and living in the Dutch port of Enkhuizen allowed him the opportunity to gain experience at sea. At a time when the Low Countries were struggling to gain their independence from Spanish dominion, van Linschoten travelled to Spain to work with his brother in Seville, and eventually ended up in Lisbon. For a young man looking for adventure and opportunity, he could not have chosen a better place. And it is from this time forward that he essentially begins to build his cartographic career.
The Portuguese had spent the 16th century constructing a dominant hold on the sea route around Africa to the east. This gave them a near monopoly on Indian Ocean trade, with Spain as their only serious rival. Throughout the Indian Ocean littoral, the Portuguese constructed and manned coastal forts in order to maintain this monopoly. In 1505, the Portuguese King cemented his ambitions in the region by establishing the Portuguese State of India (Estado da India Portuguesa). Initially, the capital was at Cochin (Kochi) in southwestern India, but it was soon moved further north, to Velhas Conquistas in Goa, where a Portuguese government continued in some form all the way to 1961.
It would be in the bustling and cosmopolitan Goa — the capital of Portugal’s eastern empire — where van Linschoten would settle. Both during the journey and once he arrived in Goa, van Linschoten was meticulous in keeping extensive notes on the peoples, customs, and geography of the regions he travelled through. He studied and copied portolans, sorted through reports, noted down gossip and rumors, spoke to merchants and mariners, and, presumably, sketched maps of places he visited or about which he heard. Years later, these unique and personal data would help set his maps apart from his contemporaries and make his Itinerary one of the most important travel accounts from this era.
Van Linschoten left Goa and began the long journey back to Portugal in January 1589. En route, his ship was pursued by an English fleet and lost its cargo in a storm while anchored off the Azores. After the loss of the cargo, van Linschoten was persuaded to stay and help recover it, and so he spent two years on Tercera, working on and preparing his notes from Goa for publication. He eventually arrived in Lisbon early in 1592 and proceeded to sail home to The Netherlands shortly after that.
Like many cartographers of his day, van Linschoten entertained an ambition of publishing his studies and insights in a large work. Once back in Europe, he set straight to the task and in 1596 his magnum opus was published. Known as the Itinerario, this multivolume publication collated all of the Portuguese (and some Spanish) sources on sailing the Indian Ocean and presented them in a coherent and usable fashion. At the time of its appearance at the end of the 16th century, the great Dutch publishing houses were masters at marketing, and Amsterdam-based printer Cornelis Claesz knew that the addition of maps would be great for sales. This was a request that van Linschoten was all too happy to oblige, hiring the famous Langren Brothers to engrave the maps as he compiled them (Keuning 1956). The account of his experiences stands one of the most important travel works of the period.